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Low-hanging fruit and the “Cedar Point Thumbs Up”

I’ve participated in a lot of releases. Some go smoothly, some do not. The ones that do have a common element… the team takes the time to confirm that when you ask a question or give a “go-ahead” message, you also receive a “message received” response.

Release checklists are helpful as a visual aid to see progress. Even so, when moving between items, mis-steps can happen. One person can give a go-ahead message, but the next person doesn’t hear it, causing delay. Or, someone moves to the next step without hearing that the previous step was completed, creating conflict or breakage.

It may feel painful to take the extra time, but there is value in verbally confirming a message was received. So, it might sound like this:

“Step one has begun.”

“Got it. Waiting for step one to complete.”

“Step one is complete. You can proceed with step two.”

“Okay, starting on step two.”

You get the idea. Over the past few days, we’ve had lower-risk items go uncompleted simply because we didn’t take the time to acknowledge that a message was received. It may have sounded like a one-way communication, like a meeting request, but without confirmation that everyone heard the message, the next step didn’t take place. In a very simple case, I asked if the team wanted a meeting. The team assumed the meeting was required, and simply waited for the meeting invite. I really, really meant that the meeting would only be scheduled if you wanted it. So, I didn’t schedule the meeting. Looks like some on the team wanted the meeting, so I’m bummed that we had confusion on whether or not to have the meeting.

Sometimes, we call this a “sound off,” or “Cedar Point thumbs up*.” This means that everyone gives a verbal acknowledgement (or email, slack, text), even if the message is a positive acknowledgement. “Shall we move to the next feature?” “Yep, I’m ready.” “Go ahead.” “Move it, already!!”

Yes, it can create a lot of email chatter, but having a response from everyone helps those requesting input understand the urgency and state of affairs. This helps in planning for all of us.

So, please, speak your mind. Give your team mates that feedback, and let them know you heard him or her. Trust me, it will be appreciated!

* For those of you not in Michigan or Ohio, Cedar Point is a theme park most of us have frequented in our youth… it’s the closest example of a group of people doing safety checks as people board the rides. They all give a thumbs up when their area has been checked, and the ride operator only starts the ride once all thumbs are up.


Deja Vu and Other Cliches

Here I am again, with my annual post. This time, I’m the example of what happens when your goals aren’t focused. My role is heavily weighted to being able to cover for my fellow teammates. Sure, it seems like I should know each of their jobs very well. And I’m getting there. Trouble is, I have no goals of my own to pursue.

Manufacturing environments rely on repeatable processes… doing the same thing every day. Doesn’t sound too ripe for a goal, does it? Ahhh… yes! There are goals revolving around doing things better, faster and cheaper, of course. And then there are more nebulous goals, like improving the product itself. Ideas from the front line. Heck, they stare at the silly thing all day, right?

News is akin to production. Graphics production. Article drafts, edits and proofs. Publishing processes. Approval processes.

And there’s the trap.

It’s so easy to simply publish more of the same every time.

“This is the way we’ve always done it.”

I get consistency, but there’s a way to pull it off while still evolving and improving. Growing with the organization. Even incremental improvements over time can map to a large organizational change goal. Yes, I’m talking about content. Separating content from the publishing system.

We currently have a very old publishing system. It was very cool back in the day, and did all kinds of personalization and customization that simply was unheard of back then. And now we’re hampered by it, so we think. Or, so outsiders think. Until we get them to rethink their approach.

Data helps, but sometimes the improvements are so intuitive that they sell themselves. Like this idea of spreadability vs. stickiness. I rolled my eyes as soon as I read, “No, we needed to launch a corporate blog.”

Okay, I’m not that mean. I rolled my eyes, and then went to work looking for ways to educate people internally on how to spread information rather than make them all come hither. That’s where a portal design that seems ancient can really work to our advantage. Leverage the flat content structure to cross link and feature content from other sources throughout our intranet. It’s a simple concept, but “related content” is one way to get unstuck from a system that’s holding you back.

All of our publishers are getting better at embedding links to other content in articles they publish. The context really helps people know that they’re going to get what they want, and it helps us package content into meaningful collections for our employees.

Yep, it may be frustrating to be treading water, teaching the same lesson four years later. Grasp the challenge of finding a new way to use it. Teach it. Share it. Make it a goal.

“Dumb blondes” and Usability

People pick on blondes for being dumb. I grew up a toe-headed blonde, so, yes, I got all the jokes.

I’ve always had a severe dislike for jargon. It smacks of elitist exclusion.

Two prejudices that now work to my advantage.

I had a boss back in the day that explained to me the tipping point for hiring me – if I can explain fuel cells to fifth graders, surely I can explain mortgages to just about anyone. No, I don’t have a magical understanding of all things. I had some pretty knock-down, drag-out fights with my chemist friend as I tried to understand something about recycling plastics.

I am driven to deconstruction by my desire to know why. How. Leave no person left behind. Never assume a class of people can’t understand something. My current boss asks me to create documentation on processes all the time. “You know, like you do so well.” Is it a gift? Or fed up with others assuming I can’t possibly understand this? Yup. A bit of determination to prove people wrong.

I work for a financial company now. My colleague, Deb, had the same fear I did when starting this job – I’m not a finance person! How is this going to work? It does, because we both ask a lot of questions. Sure, it’s annoying for the seasoned veterans, but we manage to catch things. Assumptions. Doing it the way we’ve always done it. Little typos.

I’d like to think this excruciating trait of having to explain things in plain English is a benefit. However, there’s beating a dead horse, and the value of shared meaning can’t be denied. In the end, it’s a balance between being helpful to the newbie and being efficient for the veteran – clarity.


Another icy, frozen status update

Renaissance Center overlooking Detroit RiverI’m freezing. Bitterly cold. And, yes, I spent two more days at the Ren Cen, admiring the frozen Detroit River. Final pitch preparation is now done, and the presentation has been delivered. Milestone completed. We said goodbye to our project manager today, too. Except I wasn’t there for it. For a while, I enjoyed the excitement of last-minute edits in pitch prep, catching all those things that are supposed to be caught, and helping those around me keep their heads about them. And then it turned ugly. We ran out of time to make all the changes we wanted, and Will and I cringed as we saw things that just shouldn’t be. Good thing James cleaned up his unique spelling of “their’yre” in time. Good one. In the end, we had to remember that this is just like churning out the daily papers on which we grew up – at the end of the day, it’s lining the bird cage. Or in the case of my house two years ago, the guinea pig cage.

My poor daily routines have been ignored all week, and I’ve had to squeeze in regular work during odd times. But, I did manage to create a content calendar that I like. It defines the audiences we need to hit as an overlay for the regular “what’s happening this month” crud we’re supposed to work with. We can then look at the angles and make sure we’re creating useful stuff, not crap. Let’s see how it works out in the real world. I’m also working on a slightly different way to annotate wireframes, where the function list and use case is included. Content sources? No room for that on this one. It’ll have to stay on the content inventory.

Next week I want to get back into the education discussions, because I miss that area, and the people. The teachers and administrators I follow for @GMeducation are always upbeat, even when they’re having a rough day. They may call out a bad day, but it’s always with an attitude that today is a fresh start. Molly Keene wrote a great post on Teach Green, GM’s environmental education blog, comparing Scitable and Scribd, with a specific emphasis on classroom use. My partner-in-crime who loves Scribd even agrees with the assessment. Oh, and Google has a “computer science for high school” program, CS4HS, and they’re looking to give away money to colleges who want to create workshops. Check it out at

Yup, missed my first milestone.

Freighter on the Detroit River

It's a freighter. On the Detroit River. Much more exciting than many things I could have been doing.

No time to do the weekly status report last week because I got sucked into a pitch for the launch of the Chevy Sonic. We spent two days at the Renaissance Conference Center, and I swear I spent more time watching the freighters than contributing valuable ideas. Well, except for the bad idea of dressing Danica Patrick in Victorian garb in a misguided attempt to lure NASCAR fans to sign up for the Martha Stewart iPad app. Yup, you had to be there.

During the course of our brainstorming, however, Patrick Falconer (a.k.a. “the Canadian”) shared what his cousin, Squash Falconer has been doing. Squash is a lively girl who created “the knickers philosophy.” It’s quite awesome, and I agree wholeheartedly. But, who can argue with a woman who has climbed, skied and jumped off more places than most of us have ever seen. Continue reading

My current favorite photo.

Trillium in Powers, Mich.

My grandpa's camp has a healthy batch of Trillium. I had totally forgotten about this flower until last Spring, when we were there for his 90th birthday party.

This blog sucks.

Forget the fact that it’s been exactly one year since I’ve posted. Even though old content is one of the worst things you can do to a blog, that’s not why this blog sucks.

It sucks because it’s not me. Not entirely. The photo posts? Yep, that’s me. That’s what’s on my mind and a photo doesn’t ramble. Those longer posts that go on and on, pontificating? They’re downright awful.

I’ve learned over the past year that, yes, I am a communicator. I touched on that in my first post, “I’m not a fan of social media.” I’m a dot-connector. I like to hear what people are doing, and connect them with like minds. Hopefully, one of those connections will result in people putting their heads together to make things happen.

I’m also a doer. The last post, penned on the very last day of 2009, proclaims that. And I’ve been doing a lot of doing this year. It’s been hard, but it’s been a blast. And, yet, I have little to show for it. Sure, I have a VNR, a digital magazine and some lesson plans with Discovery Education that I can point to and say, “I helped make that happen.” Then there’s that crazy webcast we did with the 8th graders from Detroit Public Schools.

But, I didn’t breathe a word about it here. Why? Because I still don’t have the stomach to put it down on virtual paper. Seems there are so many other voices out there saying exactly the same thing. I have nothing new to say on the topic. I don’t feel the need to be a trend setter. I just want to be in on the party.

I’ll not come up with groundbreaking content strategy theory. I won’t create a lesson plan that hasn’t already been done. And, no, I’m still not going to write a book on social media. (Not that anyone has asked, just seems to be the trend.)

If we reserve blogs just for the groundbreaking milestones, we’ll end up with a bunch of empty blogs, just like this one. I’m going to borrow a project management practice this year. Weekly status reports. Yup, they sure can be boring, but how else can I get in the habit of recording what’s happening with these projects? Since we are supposed to be blogging for our own purposes, why not embrace that fully, and realize that, no, people really don’t care that much what I have to say. I have to say it for me.

And, so, this is my blog. And it still sucks. Because it’s for me, not you.